Matt Jarvis stresses that expensive gear doesn't automatically make a good film. His winning WexShorts entry HOME was shot on a consumer bridge camera and a DJI Spark drone
"I’ve had to make do with the equipment
I can afford or occasionally borrow...
you don’t have to have amazing kit
to make engaging films"
Wex Photo Video: Can you tell us more about yourself and the type of films you’ve been making?
Matt Jarvis: My filmmaking stemmed from my academic grounding in tropical forest ecology, love for travel and passion for the environment. My projects generally involve communicating science, conservation or travel to a wider audience, and making it engaging and accessible. I’m a completely self-taught videographer and have never had access to high-end equipment or training courses. Basically, everything I’ve done has been with what I can, when I can and where I can.
I lived in Borneo for a while, as I completed research for my thesis. When I wasn’t extracting DNA from monkey poop, I made videos about local conservation programmes, the research station I was based at and countless adventures on the amazing island. During this time, my work was recognised by an airline company who asked me to travel to South America and make more videos, the following year. As I travelled, I learnt more, watched more and further developed my style, testing new techniques along the way.
Now, a lot of my videos are produced for my new initiative, Journecology (a hybrid of ‘journey’ and ‘ecology’), which is basically my filmmaking direction in a nutshell. For this, I produce a variety of longer documentary pieces, educational videos and also short social media videos, designed to suit current trends.
Want to see more of Matt's work? Visit his website.
W: How did HOME come about?
MJ: I was actually attending a conservation biology conference in the city of Jyväskylä, central Finland, to give a talk about Journecology. My platform is designed to give academics a place where their science can be visually communicated to the masses, an important void which needs to be bridged. The theme of my symposium was Connecting People with Nature and I thought it would be appropriate, while in Finland, to produce a video which fulfilled that theme, framed by the beautiful and untouched Finnish woodland.
I searched for responsible operators in the area and looked at the type of activities that were offered. I wanted to film something that was fairly unique to this part of the world – preferably an independent company with bags of passion for their work. After a few dead ends, a member of the conference organising committee recommended fatbiking with Lumak Adventures and after contacting Jorge, I was pretty sure I was onto a winner.
I never wanted to make a typical tourism video for him. Firstly, that would be too easy and secondly, too boring. I wanted something that gave people a real sense of the Finnish woodland, but also a feel for what fatbiking is about. I wanted to show people that you can connect with nature while doing something adventurous. The Finnish woodland isn’t about epic mountains or waterfall jumping, it’s a place where you become immersed in nature through serenity and isolation. It’s somewhere more magical, which in my opinion is a much greater challenge to capture on camera and I wanted to try!
Jorge was unique, because he is originally from Portugal and moved to Finland several years ago. Initially, I didn’t necessarily want to tell his story. This is something that developed throughout the course of working with him. At the start, it was all about the identity of the forest and the activity. Over the course of the shoot, I realised how this was changing. Jorge’s story was just too interesting to ignore and when talking to him about what he does, he had a very clear idea of what drew him to Finland and how he connects with the forest. It was just too good to leave out. So, I altered my plan…
W: How did you plan the shoot?
MJ: This might sound super pretentious, but my best videos always come from a vision. Before a shoot, I imagine one shot in my mind – almost photographically clear – it’s normally the start or end of the film. In this case, it was the opening shot of the bikes weaving through continuous forest, a slow fade and gentle ambient audio with a voiceover coming in after a few seconds. What you see in the film is almost exactly what I saw in my head, a week before I filmed it.
Everything else starts to come together around the vision, like a jigsaw. I plan around new shots that I imagine in my mind and new techniques I want to try, this generally gives me enough wiggle room to adapt the plan along the way. I never like to have anything too rigid or storyboarded.
The plan changed after the first day of filming, as I got to know Jorge and understand fatbiking as an activity. My misconceptions of fatbiking being a high-octane sport were soon corrected by Jorge. He told me it was all about taking your time, taking in the forest and travelling at ease on rough terrain. My vision of intense audio and fast biking shots, contrasted by sudden peaceful vistas had to be rethought. I tried editing some shots in this style and it just felt wrong. I had to do the activity and Jorge justice.
I decided to focus much more on Jorge. After filming an interview/chat with him about his experience and connection with the forest, I knew this would be a much more enticing focus. When he said: “it just feels like home,” it really struck a chord, because Jorge is originally from Portugal. He moved country and found a home elsewhere, which shows a particularly powerful magnetism to these surroundings. So, although I stuck with some original shot ideas, the video was adapted along the way, as I got to know Jorge, fatbiking and the Finnish countryside.
W: What gear did you use for the production?
MJ: If I ever had the money or opportunity to be a gear nerd, I would be. But, as it's happened, I’ve had to make do with the equipment I can afford or occasionally borrow. I still – and always will – stand by the idea that you don’t have to have amazing kit to make engaging films (or photographs). It’s all about creativity, storytelling and good editing.
I used Panasonic’s Lumix FZ1000 bridge camera, my only camera. It’s a fantastic little beast which shoots 25-100fps, up to 4K (only 25fps) and is so lightweight I can carry it almost anywhere with ease. I also used an old GoPro HERO4, a lightweight Velbon travel tripod, a standard clip-on mic with extension, a RØDE VideoMic GO shotgun mic with a handmade windshield (an old fur hat, tights and gardening mesh) and I borrowed my friend’s DJI Spark. I store everything on two Silicon Power hard drives and edit on Final Cut Pro X.
I cannot give the Lumix FZ1000 enough credit – it really is an amazing all-in-one camera with an excellent zoom. A camera is only as good as how much you know about its capabilities and shortcomings. For me, the FZ1000 was easy to carry and shoot while cycling. I biked with it around my neck and had no problems hopping off to capture footage of Jorge and the team biking around. I shoot almost everything at 50fps, which gives me the option to slow down shots when appropriate, but I’ll switch to 100fps for the odd super-slow-motion capture. The in-built stabiliser is also fantastic for filming handheld or on bikes! The only downside to the FZ1000 is that the image quality doesn’t quite have the depth of some DSLRs. The quality of the 100fps high-speed video is decreased, especially in lower light.
The DJI Spark was new to me, so it took a little while to get used to it, but you get a decent full HD image and it has a fairly good battery life. It’s insanely portable too, which helped with the shoot. I was quite limited by the range on the Spark. It made up for this by being so tiny – I could comfortably fly it within the forest itself.
All my other equipment is either handmade or relatively cheap. I think we can get too bogged down with the spec of equipment nowadays, and lose sight of ingenuity and creativity. The mic was a tad harsh and the tripod was a little flimsy, but mostly everything worked like a charm.
W: can you explain your approach to the edit?
MJ: I edited a short trailer as an experiment to see how the footage felt after the first day. This allowed me to understand how to shoot the second day and if things were working. It made me realise that I wanted to change the video to be more about Jorge. So, in turn, test editing actually helped me plan the filming!
After recording the interview and final day, I immediately put together the initial vision I had a week before. It’s intensely satisfying to be able to make something in your mind happen on screen in front of you, just how you imagined it. When that was done, I focused on arranging the ten minutes of interview questions. I didn’t want too much talking, but then I also wanted the video to reflect Jorge’s identity, so it was a balance of words vs silence, and interview vs B-Roll.
I really wanted to focus on audio too. Previously, audio has been a weak aspect of my filmmaking, and I wanted to make something quite vivid and personal. In many ways, I think I achieved this. I chopped and changed audio around from various shots to highlight particular sounds and mirror the visuals. I also focused on the overall phrasing of the video, with crescendos mirroring the pace of shots and emotion of Jorge’s words.
W: Did you experience any challenges?
MJ: Initially, I had a problem before I even left. My DJI Phantom 3 Professional controller stopped working the night before I was due to leave. Since I knew the landscapes were going to be incredible, I was up all night trying to fix it. After failing many attempts to resolve the situation, I called on a nearby friend to borrow his DJI Spark. In the end, the Spark had many pros and after a bit of adapting, I still got that all-important opening shot. Without a drone, it would’ve shattered my initial vision.
When shooting with a limited drone battery, it’s important to plan your shots from the ground, before you take off. It takes an understanding of how aerial shots work before you can get this right. The longer you faff about in the air – trying to work out what looks good – the fewer shots you’ll get. Simply having a mental bank of what shots look good when using a drone will work in your favour. Since the Spark’s battery life is pretty short and we were cycling for more than six hours, I’d say this was pretty important!
Filming on a bike for much of the video was also challenging. Obviously, I was able jump off every now and then, and get a few shots during breaks. I wanted to capture some cycling as well. Most of my GoPro shots were ruined because I got the angle wrong, so I was reliant on my handheld shots from the saddle. Using full use of the FZ1000’s flip screen, I was able to cycle one handed and also record all around me while moving. The in-built stabilisation was great, however, sometimes I feel an un-stabilised shot provides the viewer with a more realistic representation of a scene.
I also wanted to try some new shots. One that proved particularly challenging was cycling with my tripod in one hand and positioning the camera (upside down) near the floor, all while running parallel to Jorge’s moving bike. One slip and I would have damaged the camera, held about 2in from a rocky path… I had to perfectly match Jorge’s speed, while holding the tripod steady and cycling in a straight line. Although you only see the shot for less than a second, it was totally worth it!
W: Do you have any advice for others wanting to create their own outdoors documentary?
MJ: Go and do it! I really think people should try as much as possible to make documentaries about something they love or even something that’s outside of their comfort zone. You learn about all sorts of new techniques when filming and editing a range of themes and the skills are always transferable.
Don’t think that limited gear means you won’t make something good. If you need inspiration, look at Matty Brown’s work. He had next to nothing and made some incredible shorts. Try to think outside the box. Do something new, film something that nobody would have thought or bothered to film and frame it in an interesting light.
Technically, I’d say if you’re starting out, use a tripod. There are situations when handheld shots look good, but you can’t go wrong with a still shot. It’s a simple and cheap way to make things look professional. Also, buy a cheap drone. A Spark will only set you back a few hundred pounds, and it can really take your films to the next level. A cheap clip-on mic for interviews will also bring your sound quality way up. These things don’t have to cost a lot, just practise using them to know what works.
Understand what you are filming before you go and film it. Spend a day or two with the subject, be it a person, environment or activity. Take some test shots and work out what might or might not work. It’s not unusual for you to have to rethink your plan in some way. I’d also encourage filming a lot of attractive B-Roll, which sets the scene or encapsulates your environment. These can be introductory vistas or even close ups of your subject or surroundings. On that note, don’t be afraid to go close and try new angles. By making a video seem intimate and personal, you can combine a series of close ups for a really powerful message, which will make the viewer feel involved.
W: Do you have any interesting projects lined up for the future?
MJ: I always try to keep something in the pipeline, especially for Journecology. At the moment, I still have many gigabytes of film from travelling over the past year, which I’m itching to put together. Often, looking back over the raw footage gives me inspiration for a new video.
I’m heading back to Iceland to work with sustainable operator East West in September. They invited me back after filming their Snæfellsnes tour in the spring. Of course, it’s going to be incredible for aerial footage and landscapes. Hopefully, I’ll get to see some great marine life this time too. Iceland is one of those places where everywhere you look there’s a potential shot, it’s just stunning and different in every season.
As part of the science communication work I do, I’m sometimes featuring work from places I’ve not visited. Lots of these researchers have projects in exotic and isolated locations. This means I sometimes end up making films from footage that is donated or produced by somebody else, often someone with no camera experience. These projects are also really interesting and I tend to learn a lot – gathering footage or advising somebody on how to take simple and effective shots from across the world can be tricky! Secondly, it really pushes me to make something interesting, without being able to craft every moment from behind the camera. Finding that two seconds of stable footage or editing badly filmed shots in a way that makes the video look interesting is challenging.
Finally, if you’re interested in either science or travel, stay tuned regarding Journecology. It’s relatively new, so the website is currently being built from the ground up, but it has a ton of short videos on there and tries to cover everything from conservation science through to green living. There’s also a podcast in the pipeline, and I’ll be filming that too, so maybe a… ‘vlodcast’?
About the Author
Kristian Hampton is Wex Photo Video’s Technical Editor for Pro Video. A video specialist who has worked in corporate studios for companies such as Vodafone Group and PwC, as well as working as a freelance grip on various TV productions and features. He also runs Krade Media, providing enterprises with production services. Follow Kristian on twitter @KrissHampton